We first spy Liberace sat at a gleaming piano in glittering attire, further illuminated by a spotlight. The bright white allure is punctuated by his full set of teeth, beaming to his plentiful admirers. The pretence is a reach to the high heavens with outstretched arms, though at this juncture the entire façade is not yet wholly apparent, nor is it ironic. Over the course of the two hours, Lee Liberace will live publicly and privately for our enjoyment, imparting upon us an impression that feeds back into that original, miraculous nucleus and its encroaching society. First, one consumes with the consumers; then, one (continues to) consume whatever lies Behind the Curtain. The biopic onion peels itself, and so we chew.
Among those in attendance at the opening concert is young Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) whose memoir, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, this film is based on, and who quickly becomes immersed in the pianist’s luxurious lifestyle. Soderbergh thusly approaches things from Thorson’s outsider baby steps, entering into a showbiz asylum and succumbing to its perverse pleasures with a hesitant willingness. Taking Thorson’s side does sometimes put Michael Douglas’ Liberace at risk of appearing a monster – as per his persistent degrading treatment of Scott – though if one aligns with Scott’s emotional frame of mind they can see – especially in the film’s glorious quasi-fantasy sequence – the depths of compassion that Damon’s character has for the ludicrous Liberace, and how that circumvents any depictions of resolutely black-and-white human partnerships.
What’s clear is that Matt Damon hasn’t been given enough credit, in proportion to his co-star, for a role that prevents a quality biopic from taking its helium balloon and disappearing into the stratosphere. The casting of 80s heterosexual lust figure Michael Douglas as Liberace is, as everyone has been wont to mention, very much inspired, and the extent to which Douglas wholeheartedly disappears into his role is truly something to behold. But standing apart from Douglas’ flamboyance is a wonderfully nuanced turn from Damon, who doesn’t trip into the pitfalls of magnanimous response to every extravagance. Consider the scene in which Damon, after undergoing a reverse-Pinocchio plastic surgery at the behest of Liberace, and at the hands of taut-faced surgeon-evangelical Dr. Jack Startz (Rob Lowe), hears a passer-by remark, “You’re Liberace’s son, aren’t you?” and stops to quietly observe his own reflection. Or an early scene taking place during one of Scott’s early visits to Lee’s palatial mansion, in which Soderbergh’s camera stays firmly trained on Damon’s face to record an isolated reaction to the surrounding décor and Liberace’s offscreen exit from the pool.
Hold up such a moment alongside Tobey Maguire’s gormless awe toward luxury in Baz Luhrmann’s execrable The Great Gatsby, released just a few weeks ago. Soderbergh thankfully forgoes the Luhrmann tendency to pepper our eyeballs with a meaningless snapshot barrage of lavish production design. This is a filmmaker who, acting as director and cinematographer, has full, assured command of his craft; his lens floats through Chez Liberace, creating a sense of space and valuing both the meticulous design, detail and each character’s relationship to the set without outright seizing our attention. The twin feeling of allure and entrapment – as simple as the amalgamation of filmic space and time – is dutifully earned, sans any aesthetic suffocation à la Baz.
Richard LaGravense’s script briskly inserts exposition into minor exchanges so as not to let the wheels spin. Populating the playground are plenty of colourful side characters, from Dan Aykroyd as Lee’s grouchy manager Seymour, to Scott Bakula’s Bob Black complete with a Village People handlebar moustache. Of particular note is Cheyenne Jackson as Liberace’s former lover Billy Leatherwood, based on actual protégé Vince Cardell, whose uncanny resemblance to Lee serves as a dark premonition.
“Do you know how many there have been?” Billy asks Scott bitterly. Soderbergh’s theme of the body as commerce in contemporary society is realised in the assembly line treatment which dictates Scott’s eventual fate as surgery-altered boytoy of Liberace. Scott is seen as his master’s property, fulfilling more than a few functions – companion, bodyguard, someone to take care of the animals. Liberace gives his tell when he refers to Scott as ‘Baby Boy’, precisely the same name as his dog (and winner of the Palme Dog at this year’s Cannes), which exists for him to adore and in turn dish out unbridled adoration.
“Everybody wants a piece of me,” says Liberace, “a piece of the action.” He may change Scott for himself, but Lee changes himself for the world; horrified at his appearance on the Carson Show, he calls up Startz for another round of surgery. Arguing with his manager Seymour about the amount of dates he works, Liberace expresses a weariness brought about by his worldwide distribution as a product for the masses, and one unhealthily steeped in self-repression masquerading as Catholicism. When Scott interjects in the tour scheduling, Seymour orders him to “stay out of my fucking business”, though the “business” is ironically directly linked to the sacrificing of Scott’s individuality. Without the twin forces of adulation and repression enforced on Liberace from his legions of followers, would Billy, Scott and whoever else have been subjected to their trials of objectification?
Located predominantly inside an insular environment devoid of any social interaction, the film lives and breathes within the inner lives of Lee and Scott, taking advantage of its insider source material without taking too great a leap into the world which set the pair along on this chain of self-mutilation, of both the body and the identity. Does it suffice? One might argue that Douglas’ performance is compelling enough, and Soderbergh’s sumptuous digital photography, captured imaginatively from all conceivable angles, only elevates the material. But at its rawest, underneath the sheer beauty – the golden sheen, the nipped and tucked perfectionism – the linear biopic structure nevertheless plods along.